Saturday, 27 October 2007

Deskilling society

There will be many legacies of this Labour government in the UK and around the world whether that is a legacy of peace in Northern Ireland or war in the near and the middle east. On a more local level I would argue that there is a legacy of deskilling or deprofessionalising of key public service roles for what can only be economic reasons.

Deskilling is usually associated with the introduction of technology into a profession that usurps many of the skilled tasks rendering jobs simple tasks that can be performed by an unskilled or semi-skilled workforce. Deprofessionalisation works in a similar way in which skilled tasks are passed to semi-skilled workers because they cost far less and can be employed in greater numbers. In the UK the instances of deprofessionalisation have grown greatly under Labour. In schools we see the growing use of teaching assistants which by 2005 had grown in number to 95,460, twice the number as there were when Labour came to power, whereas the numbers of teachers has fallen. Teaching assistants are not trained teachers, they are paid considerably less and yet they cover teachers in periods of absence and have powers of discipline over students; they are teachers on the cheap, teachers lite if you will.

In the police we have 'community supports officers', that is to say members of the public working in uniformed roles. They don't have any powers of arrest over that which any member of the public has but they do have statutory powers of stop and search, to seize property, issue fixed penalty notices for traffic or public order offences. Once again they have a fraction of the training and receive far less money for their work. In healthcare we have the growth in the powers of nurses including their movement into the field of diagnosis. With the NHS direct phone service and the new NHS walk-in centres you see or speak to a nurse alone for a diagnostic session, there is the possibility to speak to a doctor further down the line and only if you get a referral from the nurse but most people are dealt with by someone who has had yet again a fraction of the training or medical knowledge, and of course receives a fraction of the pay of a fully qualified doctor.

This weekend has seen the story hit the news that nurses will be given the power to decide whether or not a patient should receive a resuscitation attempt. In a typical media way the story has been blown totally out of proportion and people are scared and confused which is what the news does best. That particular story is probably more of a power play between some doctors who would like to have complete medical control and NHS managers who are trying to bring down the costs of a debt-ridden health system but what is the bigger story is that it is endemic of a growing trend. I simply don't trust a nurse to properly diagnose me, a teaching assistant to properly educate a child or a community support officer to police a street and these are just examples because there are many more in the social services and pharmacology for instance. We are heading towards an age of profound mediocrity in which we are not willing to pay to have skilled public services.


maggiecat said...

Interesting. This is also a problem in librarianship. You might be interested in this article about the externalization of information:

Paolo said...

Thanks Mags, this has been something I've been thinking about for some time and it does seem to be an area in which economic arguments have won out over social arguments.

The article was brilliant and is the reason why I haven't as yet bought a sat nav as I fear I'll lose the ability to navigate by other means. It is a growing trend in which we are divorced from the workings of technology around us. When the only operating system on a PC was MSDOS I felt I knew a lot more about its inner operations than I do with Windows to the extent that if anything goes wrong all I know to do it restart and hope the problem has gone away.

The irony of the link between the two problems is the role of expertise. With the growth in the reliance upon technology there is a growing reliance upon experts because if anything ever goes wrong we simply don't have the capacity to do anything about it. With deprofessionalisation the problem is almost reversed -- we still lack the capacity but we are now less likely to have an expert help us out as they are too expensive.